Intermunicipal agreement on Royalston treatment plant inked

  • Royalston's wastewater treatment plant, which serves approximately 60 customers in the South Village, is located on an embankment overlooking the Millers River. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 10/18/2020 2:43:44 PM
Modified: 10/18/2020 2:43:41 PM

ATHOL — The Royalston Selectboard met Wednesday morning to approve and sign an intermunicipal agreement (IMA) that hands operation of the town’s wastewater treatment plant to the town of Athol. That afternoon, Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski affixed his signature to the document.

So, as of 12:01 Thursday morning, Oct. 15, the same people who operate Athol’s wastewater facility are doing the same for Royalston. The pilot agreement remains in effect until June 30 of next year.

To Suhoski, the pact represents more than just an agreement that benefits two neighboring communities.

“I’m on the executive committee of the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts,” said Suhoski, “and I’m also a member of the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, which is comprised of representatives from regional planning commissions from throughout the Commonwealth and governor appointees as well, to look at issues facing rural communities.”

Both groups, he explained, try to formulate potential strategies for tackling the issues that smaller communities tend to have in common.

“They include infrastructure providing water and wastewater services,” he continued. “When to do it, when not to do it, how to staff it. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) provide permits on an ongoing basis to tighten (wastewater) emissions requirements, which is all good for the environment. But it creates added burdens for cities and towns — especially smaller towns — on how to manage their facilities.

“So, in Royalston you have a fairly new treatment plant. It’s in pretty good condition; should be running probably a little smoother than it has been. But it serves 53 or 55 customers in that area of South Royalston.”

He said the plant is good for the Millers River, but it presents Royalston with the problem of having to meet EPA and DEP permitting requirements and appropriate staffing levels with a small customer base, even if supplemented by taxpayer supported subsidies.

“This issue can be repeated in other communities across rural Massachusetts,” said Suhoski, “on how to maintain the infrastructure and meet requirements but keep it somehow affordable to ratepayers and taxpayers. So, it’s a challenge.”

The town manager said the idea of an IMA was first broached during a discussion with Royalston Selectboard Chair Deb D’Amico at a monthly meeting of school and municipal officials where issues regarding the Athol Royalston Regional School District are discussed.

“We really should see more regionalization of services to really reach economies of scale,” said Suhoski. “That’s the larger picture. The smaller picture is a big deal in Royalston, because they’re trying to bid out (operation of) this plant, and they’re getting six-figure cost estimates to privatize it — really unsustainable costs for what should be a fairly routine operation.”

Suhoski said he brought the idea back to then-Public Works Director Doug Walsh and, at that time, assistant director Dick Kilhart, “who really took the project under his wing.” Royalston Selectboard members also spoke with Walsh’s counterpart, Keith Newton, to discuss the idea.

He also noted that a couple of staff members of Athol’s treatment plant have been assisting Royalston for a few months and, therefore, are familiar with the smaller town’s facility.

“We just see this as a furtherance of our partnership with the school district,” said Suhoski, “our partnership with animal control services — in which Orange is also a partner — and trying to see how we can do things better and be good neighbors.”

Under the agreement, Royalston has agreed to pay Athol $7,500 by Nov. 15. That amount represents a pro-rated fee covering the last two weeks of October and all of November. Thereafter, Royalston will pay out $5,000 a month. Payments will increase by 2.5 percent annually if, as expected, the IMA is renewed in June.

Repair and maintenance of the plant will be covered by Royalston’s public works budget.

Plans call for review of the pilot agreement to begin no later than April of next year, with an eye toward perfecting the pact, if need be, by the end of the fiscal year.

Suhoski praised Kilhart, who has since succeeded Walsh as DPW director, for taking on the project and working diligently to see it through to its conclusion.

“We believe there will be some sort of modest overhead fee, which will be part of Royalston’s fee, that will go into Athol’s revenues, which on the back end helps to reduce pressure to increase rates here in Athol.

“So,” Suhoski concluded, “it’s a win across the board. The employees are happy, and there’s a chance to build capacity going forward and help a neighboring community.”


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